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Kyoto by the Sea

Epicurean Delights: Tango is a Foodie Paradise

2022.04.08

With its beautiful coastline and dramatic mountain ranges, the Tango region in Kyoto by the Sea (northern Kyoto) is home to some of the best gourmet food in Japan. In addition to crab, oysters, yellowtail, and other seafood, you can also sample wild game such as deer and boar from the mountains. The water and air are clean and the soil is fertile, so the vegetables and rice grown in this region are superb. Many up-and-coming chefs are using produce from the region to create innovative dishes at some of the most talked-about restaurants in Tango. The striking scenery of the Japan Sea coast provides the perfect backdrop to these memorable and delicious meals and beverages.

A Land Blessed by the Goddess of Food

The region has been a source of excellent produce since ancient times. Tango is also the hometown of Toyouke-omikami, an important Japanese goddess of food and fertility. It is said that she descended from the heavenly realm to this land in the distant past, and there are many local legends about her. Toyouke-omikami symbolizes the beginnings of rice cultivation in Japan, and there is a paddy field where she is said to have grown rice for Amaterasu, the sun goddess. Rice is still one of Tango’s most prized agricultural products, and easy access to high-quality rice and clean water has also led to a flourishing sake industry. As a result, today Tango is also home to a dozen sake breweries.

Nawaya

New Washoku Culinary Discoveries in Tango

Nawaya in Kyotango City attracts food lovers from all over Japan as well as from overseas, and was recently featured in the 2022 edition of the Gault & Millau GUIDE JAPAN. The restaurant is housed in a building surrounded by peaceful fields and is located a little inland from the coast. The owner/chef is Yukinori Yoshioka, who was born and raised in the region. After training at a famous Japanese restaurant in Kyoto, he opened Nawaya in 2006 at the age of 32.

From an early age, his parents would take him to the nearby mountains to forage for wild vegetables and to the coast to gather fish and shellfish. Yoshioka explains, “The ‘delicious memories’ of those days were the starting point for me as a chef.” Yoshioka’s dishes are designed to showcase the freshest ingredients from Tango. His food captures the enjoyment of tasting the four seasons by combining fresh local seafood with organic vegetables grown in his own fields, in addition to foraged herbs and wild game.

An indispensable element in Yoshioka’s approach to cooking is the wood fire. Yoshioka, who installed a wood-fired oven in his open kitchen, explains that “I realized that a primitive flame is the most effective way to bring out the best from the ingredients.” It takes some skill to adjust a wood fire to match the ingredients chosen for a particular dish, and Yoshioka is able to create savory notes and surprisingly juicy textures. It’s a pleasure to spend time at the counter watching the flames and listening to the sound of the wood crackling as you wait for your food to be served. Yoshioka’s cooking is a delight for the senses.

Nawaya only offers prix fixe dining, with about 10 to 12 dishes making up both lunch and dinner. The menu changes daily, as the dishes are prepared using seasonal ingredients. The photo above is an example of a flavorful winter dish, featuring Tango’s winter specialty hen crab with savory grilled winter vegetables.

Yoshioka’s specialty, konare-zushi, is a unique dish inspired by nare-zushi, a form of fermented fish-and-rice preparation that is known as one of the earliest forms of sushi in Japan. For our visit the seasonal fish was sawara—Spanish mackerel, which was cooked to a rare texture and served with porridge-like sushi rice. The sweetness and aroma of the tart rice contrasted nicely with the flavor of the slightly fatty sawara.

The opening dish of the prix fixe course at Nawaya is a freshly-cooked single mouthful of rice cooked over a wood fire. This is called niebana, which means that the rice is al dente in texture with plenty of moisture from being served just at the point that the rice grains become soft enough to eat. The concept is to convey the sweetness and freshness of the rice, which serves to whet the appetite for the dishes to come.

The restaurant’s interior, finished with natural materials such as clay walls and washi paper, is both sophisticated and comforting. The combination of the dishes and the vessels they are served on is also very tasteful. Please note that reservations are required at Nawaya. Reservations in English are available by using the Tablecheck website: https://www.tablecheck.com/en/nawaya

Nawa-ya

Namiji

Sushi in Miyazu: A Favorite with the Locals

Sushi in the Tango area is a reasonably priced alternative to the more expensive options in central Kyoto. A restaurant popular with locals means quality fare. Miyazu, known nationwide as the location of the famed Amanohashidate viewspot, is also home to Namiji, which is one such sushi restaurant frequented by the local community. The restaurant is run by Yoshihisa Kishimoto, a native of Miyazu, and his wife. Every morning, Kishimoto personally visits the local port to select and purchase freshly caught fish for his sushi. Namiji is known for serving fat-rich, flavorful seasonal fish as well as rare species that can only be caught in this region’s waters.

For first-timers, Kishimoto recommends the jizakana nigiri, locally-caught sushi (7 pieces), or the kaisendon seafood rice bowl (both 2,200 yen). On the day of our visit, the fish included red-spotted grouper, yellowtail amberjack, and the red cornetfish. The fish served at Namiji are often unique to the region and the names might be unfamiliar. Rest assured, photos of the fish Kishimoto purchased that day are posted in the restaurant, and he points to them and tells diners of their characteristics. The sushi has a pleasant texture, melts in your mouth, and has a wide variety of flavors. The delicious koshihikari rice, grown in the region, is a perfect complement to the locally-sourced fish.

The warm smiles and hospitality of the Kishimotos make you feel relaxed and welcome at Namiji.

The Kishimotos are both certified sake sommeliers and offer sake from six local breweries that they have personally selected. The pairing selection ranges from full-bodied sakes to clear, crisp, and dry options. Nurtured by the nature of Tango, the fish, rice, and sake are a perfect match, complementing each other’s flavors. Additionally, seasonal delicacies such as Tango torigai shellfish in summer and Matsuba crabs in winter are another reason to experience dining at Namiji. Any time of year is the best time for a visit.

Visitors can book through Umi no Kyoto DMO Tour Center via email: tour@uminokyoto.jp.

Sushi Namiji

Iio Jozo

Rice vinegar loved by chefs from around the world

Anyone who has eaten sushi knows that komezu (rice vinegar) is an indispensable part of Japanese cuisine. Among the many makers of rice vinegar throughout Japan, Iio Jozo in Miyazu produces outstanding, flavorful rice vinegar using a traditional process that takes nearly two years. Iio rice vinegar is used by sushi artisans and professional chefs all over Japan, as well as by some of the finest kitchens in Paris, New York, San Francisco, and many other far-flung destinations.

Iio Jozo was founded in 1893, on a site next to Kunda Bay just to the east of Miyazu City. Akihiro Iio, the fifth-generation head of Iio Jozo explains, “The raw material for rice vinegar is sake. First sake is brewed, then acetic acid bacteria is added to it, and only then can it be fermented into rice vinegar.” Currently, most manufacturers in Japan purchase their sake from external suppliers, but at Iio Jozo, they start from the sake brewing process to make truly delicious rice vinegar.

At Iio Jozo, the first step is to select the right ingredients to make their sake. For more than 50 years, the brewery has been using subterranean water from the surrounding mountains and locally grown, pesticide-free rice. Furthermore, Iio Jozo has leased some of the terraced rice paddies in Miyazu, and the brewers grow rice themselves, thereby supporting the preservation of the beautiful local scenery and natural environment.

The key to rice vinegar production is the traditional method of slow fermentation using only the power of bacteria, which takes about 80 to 120 days. If oxygen were to be supplied artificially, fermentation could be completed in just one day, but Iio states with pride, “Taking the proper time to ferment produces a full-bodied, rich aroma that cannot be found anywhere else.” Iio rice vinegar uses a larger amount of rice than most other vinegars, which gives it a lot of umami.

After fermentation and maturation, the resulting vinegar is a shining, golden color. The clean water and air together with the rich, fertile soil of the Tango region are all a part of Iio Jozo rice vinegar. Visitors can purchase from the store inside the brewery, from supermarkets in Miyazu City, and Michi-no-Eki roadside stations (designated rest areas found along roads and highways), so be sure to pick some up as a delicious souvenir.

Io Jizo Brewery

This is a vinegar brewery that was founded in 1893. It produces pesticide-free rice as its raw material, and uses it to carefully make vinegar via a process that has remained almost unchanged since its founding. At the brewery, you can find a vinegar store and can also take a tour around the establishment (must inquire in advance).

aceto

Italian Cuisine and the Tango Terroir

Tango rice vinegar maker Iio Jozo owns and operates Aceto, a restaurant in central Miyazu that serves southern Italian cuisine. The restaurant, which opened in 2017, is situated inside a renovated 120-year-old townhouse. Akihiro Iio, the head of Iio Jozo, wants to “further revitalize the town of Miyazu through food.” Although Miyazu is known for its great produce, the local restaurant scene is still not well known due to the large number of day-trip visitors. Iio sees aceto as an opportunity to increase the number of people who visit Miyazu for the purpose of dining.

Chef Yasuhiko Shige took up the challenge laid down by Iio, and his creative cuisine is pleasing the palates and winning the hearts of visitors to Miyazu. After training in Sicily, Shige spent a long time in Tokyo, and is a leading authority on Sicilian cuisine in Japan. “When I came to Tango, I was surprised by the freshness of the ingredients. The fishermen even deliver the fish directly to the restaurant,” says Shige. In order to bring out the best in the local produce, which he says are both “fresh and delicate in flavor,” Shige’s approach is to “make the most of the terroir of the Tango region, from the ingredients to the seasoning”.

For example, the fresh fish is salted with Tango seawater, and the fish intestines, which are usually discarded, are simmered to create a rich broth. So as not to spoil the simple sweetness and texture of the local ingredients, Shige uses nuka (rice bran) instead of butter or fresh cream. To give a gentle richness and body to sauces at aceto, he also adds leftover sake lees from vinegar production at Iio Jozo. Their specialty risotto made using fermented brown rice is “a culmination of the flavors of Tango”.

This is the antipasto from the day we visited aceto. Fresh morsels such as sea bream and sweet shrimp are prepared as carpaccio or tartar and beautifully arranged. Seasonal vegetables are grilled to bring out their sweetness and prepared as a caponata.

Iio Jozo rice vinegar adds light acidity and aroma to dishes, while giving a dish a more polished appearance. There is also a bright red vinegar made from sweet potatoes that can be enjoyed as a refreshing cocktail.

This is the primo piatto on the day of our visit: Squid Ink Tortellini and Tagliatelle Miyazu Pescatore. The aroma of the sea and the rich umami of the fresh seafood ingredients will bring a smile to your face.

“The bounty of the region gives us hints on how to combine ingredients and create our menu,” Shige says. “I want my dishes to tell the unique story of Miyazu.” As they want diners to stay overnight in Miyazu and fully experience the charm of the region, aceto is open only for dinner. Those that visit know that it is well worth it.

Aceto

Shoeikan

100-year-old recipe from the Japanese Navy

Lastly let’s take in some of the gourmet delights of Maizuru. The port town of Maizuru is also famous for its seafood, but the city has another delicacy. This is a dish based on a recipe book for the Japanese Navy which was published 110 years ago. Maizuru was the first naval port constructed on the Sea of Japan coast in 1901, and has played an important role in maritime defense ever since. The charming red brick buildings that you can find in the city were also built for military use during the same period. It is this history that has led to the preservation of a valuable collection of original recipes.

These recipes consist of about 200 dishes, ranging from sushi and tempura to Western dishes like omelet and roast beef, as well as confectionery such as doughnuts. Delicious and highly nutritious dishes contributed to improving the performance of sailors. The recipes tell of the spirit of the naval cooks who incorporated a number of Western dishes into their repertoire—dishes that were still rare at the time.

At the Shoeikan restaurant located in the eastern district of Maizuru, visitors can enjoy Western-style cuisine based on century-old naval recipes. Originally opened in 1904 as an inn, Shoeikan was frequented by famous naval officers. The original building was restored and re-opened as a restaurant in 2018. The elegant exterior and the hall with a Noh stage indicated how prestigious the inn used to be.

One of the restaurant’s specialties is beef stew. The tender meat melts in your mouth and the rich flavor is the result of a secret recipe. Curry rice, now firmly established as a favorite dish in Japan, was also a staple on board naval vessels. Introduced from India via Britain in the early Meiji period (1868-1912), the curry roux was thickened in Japan to its present form with the exotic nature of the spice mix.

Do they look alike? Nikujaga on the left, beef stew on the right.

Another unique item on the menu is the Japanese home-style dish nikujaga, made with beef, potatoes, and other vegetables gently simmered in soy sauce and sugar. According to Awa, the manager at Shoeikan, nikujaga is said to have originated in the naval yards of Maizuru. There is an anecdote about a Japanese naval officer who had spent time in England who requested beef stew for shipboard meals. The Japanese chef who fielded the request did not know how to make beef stew but stuck at it through trial and error…Regardless of its authenticity, it seems certain that it was a standard naval ration at the time.

Compare the two dishes and you will experience the richness of modern Japanese cuisine, which has evolved by combining elements from Western food cultures.

Shoeikan